Fever 1793 Plot: What Happens in the Book?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Fever 1793" by Laurie Halse Anderson. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the plot of Fever 1793? What is the timeline of events?

The historical fiction book Fever 1793 is about a young girl named Mattie who survived the yellow fever epidemic of 1793. The plot follows her journey of trying to escape Philadelphia with her grandfather.

Keep reading for a breakdown of the Fever 1793 plot.

The Plot of Fever 1793

The Fever 1793 plot takes place when a deadly yellow fever rips through the U.S. capital of Philadelphia in 1793, the lives of the 40,000 residents come to a grinding halt. For one girl, 14-year-old Matilda Cook, the journey through the three-month epidemic is both empowering and tragic. 

Matilda lives with her mother, Lucille, and paternal grandfather, Grandpa William, over their popular family-owned coffeehouse. Business is good, with mostly politicians, gentlemen, and businessmen dropping by for a bite to eat and the latest gossip. So when one of their serving girls is late for work, Lucille is livid to be left short-handed. She forces Matilda to pick up the slack, something Matilda’s had to do more of since getting older. 

Matilda feels more like a servant than a daughter and can’t wait to get away from her mother’s strict discipline. But all of Matilda’s plans of escape vanish when she learns the serving girl died the night before from a strange fever

The Fever Grows

Although the number of people dying from fever continues to grow, many in the city believe it’s just a normal autumnal illness and no big deal. But over the next few weeks, as proof of yellow fever becomes impossible to ignore, nearly half the citizens flee the city for the country. Businesses shut down, food markets close, and yellow ribbons are tied to doors and windows to signify the sick. 

Lucille was one of the first to worry about the fever and wanted to send Matilda away, but both Grandpa and Matilda didn’t listen. However, they wish they had when they come home to find Lucille sick with the fever. Grandpa agrees to take Matilda to a family friend’s farm in the country to keep her safe. Matilda says goodbye to her ailing mother and leaves her in the care of their black cook, Eliza. She hopes she will get to see her mother again.

Along the road to the farm, Matilda and Grandpa are kicked off the carriage they hired because Grandpa coughs, and a doctor checking people passing through town for the fever declares Grandpa too sick.. Matilda and Grandpa are left in the middle of nowhere with no supplies. Grandpa falls ill, and Matilda tries to protect him from the scorching heat. But without food and water, neither has enough strength to make it back home. She ventures out to find help but falls to the ground along the way. 

Sickness

Matilda wakes up in a mansion-turned hospital with yellow fever. The doctors are able to help, and she makes a full recovery. Fortunately, Grandpa didn’t have the fever, just summer grippe and a weak heart. 

When it’s time for them to leave the hospital, the doctors suggest Matilda go to the orphanage for safety. But Matilda won’t leave Grandpa and is eager for news of her mother. She and Grandpa return to the coffeehouse to find both Lucille and Eliza gone and the place destroyed by thieves. 

That night, Matilda tries to figure out how to find food in the abandoned city. It’s not safe to venture outside with the thieves lurking around and the dead lying in the streets. She decides to sleep on it and opens the windows to cool the stuffy coffeehouse down, a decision she’d regret forever. 

That night, two men enter through the window and search the house for anything valuable. They find Matilda and try to beat the information out of her. But Grandpa comes downstairs with a rifle and threatens the men. A fight ensues, and one of the men ends up killing Grandpa, leaving Matilda alone and broken-hearted. 

Survival

After taking Grandpa’s body to the mass grave in the town square, Matilda wanders the city lost and bereft. She seeks help from some of her family’s acquaintances, but everyone is either gone or too distraught to assist her. She finds herself in a bad part of town and is about to return home when she hears a whimper from the shadows. Matilda finds a little girl whose mother has died. She takes the girl, hoping to find a neighbor who will care for her. What she finds instead is Eliza walking along the wharf, alive and well. 

Eliza has been caring for her sick brother and his family, as well as others in the community. She tells Matilda that Lucille recovered from the fever and went to find her in the country. If they can all make it till the first frost, when the fever will be over, they can reunite. 

Salvation

Eliza and Matilda agree to raise the orphan girl themselves alongside Eliza’s twin nephews. Then all three children catch the fever. Matilda and Eliza fight for days to keep the children alive, finally catching a break when the first frost of the year hits the city. The children recover and the fever disappears. 

Matilda decides to reopen the coffeehouse with Eliza as her partner. For months, business booms again now that everyone has returned from the country. Everything seems to be going great, but Matilda can’t find joy in it. She misses Grandpa, and Lucille has not come home. 

One day, President Washington returns to Philadelphia. Enough time has passed for the fever to truly die out. Many have been waiting for his return as a sign that it is safe to come home. One of those people is Lucille. She’s grown weak from worry and a failed search and rescue mission for Matilda that left her near death by the side of the road. Lucille can no longer run the business, but she is home. Matilda becomes the new head of the household, and the city moves on, leaving only the ghosts as a reminder of what happened. 

Fever 1793 Plot: What Happens in the Book?

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Laurie Halse Anderson's "Fever 1793" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Fever 1793 summary:

  • What the yellow fever epidemic in 1793 in Philadelphia looked like
  • How this epidemic exposed the vulnerability of everyone, including the wealthy
  • How an epidemic can impact a young person

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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